2021 Oscars Shorts Review: Documentaries

The documentary shorts nominated for this year’s Oscars had a combined running time over three hours. So it’s understandable why I chose to see the Animation and Live-Action shorts one day while seeing the Documentary nominees another day. The documentary nominees for this year are an impressive range of films. All have a unique topic of focus that gets one thinking. Some were positive stories while some were more on negative issues. All have something to say. And here are my thoughts on this year’s nominees:

Audible (dir. Matthew Ogens): The film focuses on the football team on the Maryland School For The Deaf. For sixteen years, they’ve had the best deaf football team in the nation. But the film begins as they show their first loss in sixteen years. Although the film showcases the school’s students and the football team, the prime focus is on student Amaree McKenstry-Hall. We see Amaree as he bonds with the team and conversates with the students. Sometimes it can get heated. We learn that he and the team play in memory of a former student who committed suicide after being send to a regular school. We learn of his family background of how his father left the family shortly after his birth. Soon he reunites with his father, who’s now recovered from his drug addiction and is the head pastor of a church. Then the homecoming game happens. This is to be the last game for many of the players.

This story couldn’t have come at a better time, just as CODA is a heavy favorite to win Best Picture! And just last year, The Sound Of Metal was a Best Picture nominee! The unique thing about this is it’s about deaf athletes. You learn about how deaf football players play, you learn how they communicate. However you also get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a deaf teenage. You see they have the same fun stuff you and I had as a teenager, but you also see they have problems, concerns and insecurities all their own. It’s not only about deaf teenagers and how they live out their teenage years, but it also shows us about Amaree and his own issues, his own battles. It’s a story that goes through so many angles, but is very insightful, and very much an eye-opener.

Lead Me Home (dirs. Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk): The film focuses on the homeless situation in the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle between 2015 to 2019. The film also focuses on some individuals whom they interview. They’re various men and women, and one trans female. They come from various races. The come from various backgrounds. The interviewees are asked three main questions: their names and ages, how they ended up as homeless, and would they live in a home. The people range in ages from 26 to their 50’s. How they became homeless are a mixed bag of scenarios from drug addiction to a criminal past to the trans female disowned by the family to abusive family scenarios to the mental illness of some one messed over by the welfare system. Many would like to live in their own house, but one does not. He says every time he moves into a place, he finds himself back to being homeless soon. He would like his own van.

This is an inciteful film about the homeless situation we rarely see. We see the people interviewed on how they deal with whatever sleeping situation they can fix up, their bathing or showering opportunities they can seize, the food they’re lucky to eat and whatever counseling they get. In some cases, we’re shown the homeless in their surrounding areas, and the homeless camps in that area are large in size. We’re also shown how the homeless are in debate in their civic and state rallies and how some citizens speak their disgust at them. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some with Trump-fueled rage at the time. The film doesn’t exactly have too much of a beginning, middle and end. Nevertheless this film is a good showcase to a problem that we don’t really know a lot about, but think we do.

The Queen Of Basketball (dir. Ben Proudfoot): Lusia Harris is possibly the greatest basketball player you’ve never heard of. Born in Mississippi in 1955, she grew up poor in a segregated town. At the time, there were very few opportunities for African-American girls. However basketball for her was a way out. She would watch NBA games with her brothers and they would try to imitate the moves. Lusia stood out with her moves and her 6’3″ height. Her basketball prowess helped her pursue post secondary education at Delta State. During her first season (1974-75), the goal was to dethrone the Mighty Macs of Immaculata University who were considered the best female college basketball team ever. It paid off as Lusia and the girls were able to win over Immaculata and a new era had begun. The following year, Lusia and the Deltas did it again. Her prowess allowed her to represent the US at the Montreal Olympics where women’s basketball was being held for the first time. The US team won silver behind the Soviets. The following year, Delta repeated their win, duplicating Immaculata’s feat, and Lusia was crowned MVP. But it ended right there. There was no WNBA for Lusia to go to. She was also diagnosed as being bipolar over time. She was offered to play for an NBA team and was offered big publicity, but she turned it down. Instead she devoted her life to administration at Delta State, coaching and teaching. She married shortly after she graduated and bore four children. Looking back she has no regrets.

This appears to be a great story sold in a simple manner, but when you look at it, it makes for a great story worth telling. It often appears like the story of a pioneer in female basketball. Like she’s one of the many women who brought women’s basketball to where it is now. It showcases her achievements and her big moments and her post-basketball life. In that same manner, it’s told through her. It’s like it’s her story and it’s rightful that she is the narrator of this story. It makes sense as she’s the one who made it happen. In recent time, it also appears like a retrospect. Back on January 18th of this year, Lusia died at the age of 66. The documentary almost appears like a case where Lusia is looking back on her life. I’m glad she had the chance to do this documentary. A great way to remember her. That’s why I give it my Will Win prediction.

Three Songs For Benazir (dirs. Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei): Shaista Khan is a man living in a camp for Afghanis displaced during the war in Kabul. He is recently married to a woman named Benazir, and he sings a song of his love to her. He has plans to start a family but he also has ambitions to join the army along with starting a family. He doesn’t know how hard of a balance this will be. His father does not look upon his goal of joining the army as a good thing. Finally he is given the opportunity to join the army as he will have a meeting with a sergeant. He celebrates with friends and with Benazir, who is pregnant in expecting their first child. He again sings to her. However when he goes to the military base, he learns he needs to be endorsed by a family member if he’s to join. Strict rules in the Afghani military. When he goes to his father and brother, they refuse. Shaista is distraught. The film flashes ahead four years. Shaista is now in an addictions treatment centre. Benazir comes to visit. He is overjoyed at seeing her and his two songs. He sings one last song to her.

This is a poignant documentary. Shaista is simply an Afghani man who wants to make something of himself for himself, his family and for his family to be. We should also remember that Afghanistan is the poorest nation in the continent of Asia. What you see in Shaista appears to be the common struggle of the Afghani people as they try to pick up their lives now that the war is over. Sometimes the losses end up bigger and more hurtful in the end. Nevertheless the film ends with an image of hope. It’s needed now especially since we learned six months ago that the Taliban have returned to power. This is a film that does get you thinking and hoping.

When We Were Bullies (dir. Jay Rosenblatt): While director Rosenblatt was watching a bullying film from the 50’s, a single incident brought back a memory of an incident when he was in the fifth grade. That was when he started a fight with a boy named Richard, who was the odd kid in the class, and other classmates joined in. This Richard was also the inspiration for his first film The Smell Of Burning Ants (1994). Soon he wanted to investigate more into this. What happened to Richard? Do the other students from the class remember that moment? Did they participate? Are they remorseful of it? What does the teacher feel of it? He goes to the school to look into more pictures. He meets with other former classmates at a school’s reunion. Over time, he was able to talk more and find out how they felt about Richard and the incident. He even learned his teacher from his grade is alive and mostly well and he’s able to talk with her. She’s able to give her opinions on bullying and even mentioned her late daughter was bullied too. Later Jay reveals he lost a brother the year before so he was carrying burdens too.

This is a surprising documentary. It’s surprising how one image can suddenly trigger back an unfortunate memory of the past of when you were young and stupid. It’s full of clever imagery mixed with animation as it goes about telling the story. The visuals and the audio make for a good mix. You can call it what you want. Some will say this is a very inciteful story, especially sine bullying is a hot topic. Some will say the film was done in a ridiculous manner. Some will even say this film was a work of Jay’s egotism. Nevertheless it does get one intrigued about human nature. Even its ugliest sides. That’s why I give it my Should Win pick.

Additional Note: Although we don’t know who this Richard is or see what his face was back then, we do learn that he’s still alive and he’s actually a film producer.

And there you have it! That’s my review of the Best Documentary Short nominees. We’ll see on Sunday not only which one wins, but if it’s one of the eight categories whose award won’t be broadcast!

VIFF 2020 Review: Time

Time is a documentary of how Sibil Fox Richardson (left) fights for the freedom of her husband Robert (right).

Normally I don’t like to see documentaries. I’ve seen enough one-sided documentaries in the previous decade to turn me off them. However I took an interest in Time. Injustice to African-Americans has been a heated topic this year and I felt Time was worth seeing.

The documentary consists mostly of filmed footage from court appearances, church appearances and camera phone videos of various moments and shown in black and white. The film begins with Sibil Fox Richardson trying to get a result back from the legal system for the freedom of her husband Robert. Robert was sentenced to prison for 60 years for an armed robbery he committed. It was his first offence. It’s a sentence many, including Sybil, feel is unjust and she’s working to get him freed.

The story is a long process as Sibil is trying to get a result or even a simple answer from the Louisiana Justice Department. It’s been a long wait over years. Each time she’s been calling, she gets a message that they don’t have a result or even an answer for her. Even when they give Sibil a due date when they’ll have it ready, it’s the same response: no answer.

You may ask how did this all start? It was in the 1990’s when Robert and Sibil had plans to start a business of their own. They planned on starting a sportswear store of their own in Lafayette. It seemed destined for promise as sportswear was all the rage in the 1990’s and Lafayette is a big football town. However business didn’t go as well as they hoped. The two decided to rob a bank in 1997; Robert did the robbery and Sibil drove the getaway car. They were eventually caught and convicted. Robert’s sentence was 60 years in prison and Sibil’s was 2 1/2 years.

Since Sibil’s release, she’s been able to get her life together. She’s been able to maintain a successful career, become a responsible member of the community, and has had six children — all boys including two twins — through Robert. She’s also done a very good job of raising her sons. Her oldest son graduated from a medical college. Her twins are also very good academically. One son is on the school debating team and plans to pursue a career in justice.

One thing is still missing. Robert is not free from prison. His prison sentence was excessive. Sibil has stayed loyally married to Robert during the time and it has been her goal to get him out of prison. It’s a goal in which she’s been struggling with for years involving lawyers, court appearances, legal department negotiations, and even media interviews. She even has a life-sized picture of Robert in his prison uniform glued to a cardboard cutout in the kitchen. It’s a reminder to her and her sons what she’s fighting for.

The battle is undoubtedly a personal one. She loves Robert unconditionally, but it’s hard seeing him imprisoned. It’s hard for her to see it both as a wife and as a mother. She knows how hard it is for her sons to see their father imprisoned. It’s hard when the Justice Department promises something by a certain date, and even has a time limit by law, but they don’t have the answers and it is delayed. She’s polite about it over the phone to whoever she calls about it, but her angry feelings become obvious once she hangs up. It’s also a personal burden for her with her being the getaway driver of the robbery. She served her time, raised her family well, received forgiveness from others, but something’s missing. She may have been forgiven by others, but she never asked her own mother for forgiveness. She’s even seen at her local church during a service asking for forgiveness from her community.

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending. However at long last, Robert is free. We see the video of the day Robert is released and driven home by Sibil. The trip ends with a kiss: the first kiss during Robert’s freedom! The family celebrates with a backyard barbecue. The final act of the celebration is the family can take the cardboard picture of Robert and burn it on the barbecue.

This is a case of the right documentary at the right time. Systemic racism has been a very heated topic of 2020. George Floyd isn’t the first African-American to be killed at the hands of police. Police brutality has caused the deaths of many African Americans for decades. However when the news and video hit the public eye, the outrage grew. It was like the outrage over a common injustice had been hidden for so long and just exploded at that moment. Like a bubble bursting. It’s especially frustrating when they live in a country with a president who denies the wrongdoing and wants to label protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘extremists’ all for the sake of winning the upcoming Presidential Election. And talk from right-wing media pundits who remind the public of crime statistics involving African Americans aren’t helping to put out the fire either. The outrage was not restricted to the United States. Protests were worldwide as people were united in solidarity not only of what happened in the US but of racism in their own countries.

This documentary is about another failure of the system towards African-Americans: the justice system. In the 1980’s, a lot of Tough On Crime acts were enforced into law. This has especially hurt African Americans as prison populations escalated and African Americans make up more of the percentage of prisoners that white prisoners. Much of the problem is predominantly black neighborhoods being overpoliced and black convicts receiving harsher prison sentences. While crime by whites have gone either overlooked or underpunished.

The documentary gives a very good example of this injustice. It puts a human face on what it’s like to be the wife of a husband of a harsh prison sentence. Times like these make you wonder what they’d give a white man who committed the same crime. Sibil comes across as a strong woman who’s determined to beat the odds on the outside, but her inner frailty soon becomes obvious. She ends a phone call with the justice board politely despite the disappointing news, but speaks her anger about how she feels about it. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the racism she senses once the call ends. She’s proud of how her sons have grown up but she is still upset that they’ve all only known their father behind bars. She talks of how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep her family intact. She even wrestles with the personal demon of being part of the crime. She served her full sentence long ago and appears to have more than made up for it, but personal things like repentance to those she hasn’t repented to still bother her. The use of personal camera work is best at showing the human side of the matter because it gets the honesty of what’s happening.

The film focuses on the injustice, but it also focuses on rays of hope. Getting Robert freed from prison isn’t the only ray of hope in the film. The first ray of hope is seen in Sibil’s own life and parenting. Sibil is an oddsbeater. She refuses to make a repeat offender of herself. She’s become a responsible person in her community and church. She acknowledges the past wrongs she and her husband did and wants to move forward. As for parenting, statistics state children of parents in prison most likely grow up to become criminals themselves. That’s not the case for her sons. Their oldest graduates from a medical college. Both of her twins do well in high school and one is active on the school debating team. He plans on pursuing a career in justice. I’m sure seeing the unfairness his father endured is probably what fuels his ambition. The husband’s freedom is also a symbol of why it’s important never to quit on doing the right thing. There are a lot of injustices to overcome, but it’s worth it no matter how hard it gets.

The biggest praise should go to director Garrett Bradley. This film won the Best Director award in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival (the first African American director to win this award), the Charles Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Bradley does an excellent job in showing the images that tell the story. With straight film footage that doesn’t have a voiceover and allows the main subject do most of the talking, we get a no-nonsense undistorted story and a proper unmanipulated point of view. Filming takes places from multiple angles and we get the truth exposed. It presents the solution, but also with the huge problems it overcomes. Showing the images in black and white is appropriate because while justice shouldn’t be black and white, the system has turned it into a black and white issue. Even titling the film Time adds to the film’s quality. It’s about time served, time to rebuild your life, time to make a family happen, time to raise your children, more-that-necessary time behind bars and the seemingly-endless time to make justice for your husband happen. Above all, the time to tell the whole story and time to expose the problems in achieving the solution.

Time is more than just an excellent non-nonsense documentary that does an honest portrayal of its theme. It’s the exact documentary we need at a time like this. Also it’s a reminder that ‘Liberty and Justice for all,’ should mean all! No exceptions!

VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones
Mr. Jones is about journalist Gareth Jones, played by James Norton (left) who seeks to expose a tragedy in Ukraine the USSR is determined to hide from the outside world.

I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.

Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.

Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.

Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.

Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.

I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This¬†film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.

As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.

Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s.¬†Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.

This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.

The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.

Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.

Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’